Faster Payments May Be Forced on the U.S. by International Pressure

flagBOSTON — What will bring faster payments to the U.S.? Forget the regulators — it’s more likely to be international pressure, warns Nicholas Blake, head of global sales and strategy at Royal Bank of Scotland.

Faster payments — for consumers and businesses — are commonplace in the U.K., where they have been part of consumers’ lives for about four years. But in the U.S., even same-day settlement of ACH funds remains a distant dream.

Faster payments and standardization of financial transactions were two major themes of Sibos 2014, held in Boston this week.

Blake said during Sibos 2014 this week, that the path to faster payments in the U.K. was driven by firm pressure from the nation’s regulators. In the U.S., with the faint-hearted, 10-year plan — yes, you read that right: 10 YEARS — proposed by the Federal Reserve, this is unlikely to be the case. And yet, faster payments will come sooner than the far-off year of 2024, according to Blake.

How is that? International pressure, he argued. Standardization of financial transactions is spreading rapidly across Europe and Asia, and for U.S. consumers — and businesses —  to take part in that system and benefit from its efficiencies, U.S. banks will need to agree to upgrade the nation’s payment system.

The push for international standards in financial transactions is a relatively new phenomenon, but international standards themselves are not. The first modern international standard was launched by electrical engineers in the late 19th century, according to MIT professor JoAnn Yates, who addressed the crowd at Sibos Wednesday. Standards for the naming and quantifying of electrical units were agreed upon at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (an event that may also have seen the introduction of the hamburger, parenthetically).

Yates described the importance of standardization in the field of cargo transportation in the 1950s, when a standard size was agreed upon for shipping containers — 40 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet. This led to changes at the world’s major ports and transport networks that entailed considerable cost, but also resulted in a measurable increase in world trade volumes, according to a soon-to-be released report from MIT economists, Yates said.

A similar phenomenon could well take place in financial services, Yates argued — but the U.S. catching up to the rest of the pack in payments will need to take place first.

The ball’s in the court of U.S. banks now.

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